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Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Brian Peterson, Dml - Star Tribune

Rybak years redefine Minneapolis

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER and STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • December 31, 2011 - 3:57 PM

Before he was known as the crowd surfing, tweeting and cross-country skiing mayor, R.T. Rybak thought Minneapolis City Hall had an image problem.

"I'm so tired of turning on the six o'clock news and hearing a reference to the mayor, and assuming they're talking about the mayor of St. Paul," Rybak said during his first campaign in 2001.

Few would make that mistake now. Ten years to the day Rybak walked onto the job, the former journalist's outspoken, sometimes off-the-wall style has made him one of the most visible mayors in Minneapolis history.

Since Rybak rode a populist wave to defeat an eight-year incumbent, he has become an avid cheerleader for local causes, an agile politician who steers the City Council his way and a force in national Democratic politics.

He has put his reputation on the line to promote quality-of-life projects that sometimes became lightning rods for his critics, such as bike lanes and artist-designed water fountains. The city he inherited lacked the deep pockets of the past, so he has often played the role of enthusiastic idea man behind outside ventures: bike sharing, the City of Lakes Loppet, a cooperative workspace in an abandoned grain trading floor.

Now, the former opponent of sports team subsidies has taken perhaps the riskiest political move of his career -- a potential $300 million city investment to keep the Minnesota Vikings from leaving town.

"I'm a guy who wakes up with a lot of different ideas," Rybak said in an interview. "And that's both a strength and a weakness."

Sometimes he has acted in the name of the city's fiscal health, raising property taxes year after year until it spurred a taxpayer revolt. One member of that uprising, Kris Broberg, asserted that his own property taxes have quadrupled in 13 years. "The city was a much better and less burdensome place to live before R.T. Rybak," he said.

Despite his change of heart this year on taxes, Rybak credits the increased property tax revenue for helping the city stop a crime wave, restore its top-notch credit rating and weather a recession. By many measures -- debt, violent crime, fires, resident surveys -- the city is healthier than when Rybak took office. Others, such as the poverty and violence of north Minneapolis, are more difficult for the mayor to fix.

"Property taxes have had a huge negative impact on people," Rybak said recently in his City Hall office. "So was crime. So was the city's financial mess. And so were the massive cuts from the state and the slowdown of the economy. I don't think there's a mayor in America who had an easy time managing through the last few years."

An idea machine

Bill Dossett thought he was just going for a paddle when he teamed up with Rybak at the city's annual Tri-Loppet triathlon in 2008. "I've got your next job," Rybak told the former attorney before they got in the canoe. The mayor needed someone to lead a new citywide bike rental system.

"To tell you the truth, I had no idea what he was talking about," Dossett said. Within weeks, Dossett was in the mayor's office listening to Rybak's idea of a nonprofit model. Two years later, with private money that Rybak helped secure and a federal grant, the first neon green bikes hit the streets. In 2011 alone, residents and visitors took more than 200,000 trips in one of the largest bike-sharing programs in the United States.

"He didn't say, 'I want 20 feasibility studies,'" said Dossett, who's the NiceRideMN executive director. "He knew that this was a good thing and he tried to get the people together ... to drive it forward."

Rybak was also instrumental in other outside-the-box ideas, like the city's yearly City of Lakes Loppet ski race, a collaborative "brain exchange" workplace in the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, and championing looser beer laws to welcome more breweries. Occasionally it landed him into trouble, like proposing 10 artist-designed water fountains at $50,000 apiece to promote city tap water -- only four were built.

At the Legislature, the fountains came to exemplify government waste at a time when the city was fighting for every dollar in state aid. Everyone in his office told him it was a bad idea, but Rybak pushed ahead with a plan that he now admits was a "huge political black eye."

"I could have sat in this chair and just done the basics and not reached or tried or experimented or done something a little out there," Rybak said. "I'll take the drinking fountain as a loss, and I'll take the NiceRides, the brain exchanges, the Loppets as some of the many successes."

Management style

Minneapolis government is often described as a "weak mayor" system with a strong council, because the mayor exerts his influence through vetoes and nominations of city officials. But Rybak -- who challenges the weak mayor label -- remains a power broker in City Hall because of his ability to keep the council from getting ahead of him.

One former council member, Paul Ostrow, recalled a tense moment in 2009 when he told the mayor that he was about to go public with a controversial proposal to eliminate the city's autonomous park board. Rybak "was disturbed that I was talking to people without him knowing about it," Ostrow said. "There is a real interest on his part [in] really controlling what the council is doing and what the message is out there."

In building his team at City Hall, Rybak said he didn't clean house of Sharon Sayles Belton's appointees in his first term. That allowed him to make second-term appointments he felt confident in, such as Coordinator Steven Bosacker, Police Chief Tim Dolan and City Attorney Susan Segal.

Other appointees haven't worked out so well. The most disastrous was former Fire Chief Bonnie Bleskachek, who left the job in 2006 in less than a year after a sex scandal and costly lawsuits.

In some areas, Rybak's management style goes against the grain of his own party.

Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Downtown Council, calls Rybak "the first mayor in the modern era to be able to be both a Democrat and also be a centrist when it comes to the powers of unions to control City Hall politics."

In response, the public safety unions have taken a number of jabs at the mayor. The police officers union ran attack ads both during his 2005 re-election campaign and in 2009 when he laid off a number of officers. When the mayor proposed several firefighter layoffs this summer, firefighters showed up wearing "R.T. Rybak Fired Me" T-shirts. But while response times have risen, the number of fires has also fallen dramatically.

The number of violent crimes was also slightly lower in 2010 than 2002, after crime spiked in 2006. Despite being painted as soft on crime, Rybak cruised to re-election against a veteran politician in 2005 and faced virtually no opposition in his second re-election in 2009.

'I couldn't take it anymore'

For many homeowners, Rybak's legacy may be easiest to find in their property tax bills.

Between 2002 and the mayor's proposed 2012 budget, the dollar amount of property taxes the city collects jumped 113 percent, or $121 million. But the effect on homeowners is typically greater. The Star Tribune researched six homes ranging between $128,000 and $545,000 in 2011 market value and found tax increases between 66 and 172 percent since Rybak arrived.

That's partly because the city's business tax base, where Rybak hasn't been as aggressive in handing out development subsidies as his predecessor, hasn't kept pace with home values. State aid cuts and tax hikes mean that city taxpayers now shoulder 46 percent of the city's general fund, compared to 29 percent in Rybak's first term.

Beyond the state aid cuts, Rybak says the tax increases were needed to dig out of financial holes he inherited, such as the debt load and burgeoning pension expenses that cost the city its top credit rating while he was first campaigning for mayor, a rating since restored.

His office also contends that without Rybak's spending cuts, pension reform and limited tax exclusions, the city tax collections would have tripled -- rather than doubled.

Rybak's willingness to raise taxes has ebbed as political winds have changed. He recalled a northeast Minneapolis woman he encountered during his first campaign who sobbed about property taxes driving her from her home.

"The challenge of being mayor is that you'll have an experience like that," Rybak said. "And then you'll have an experience of somebody who is standing over the body of a dead neighbor kid."

He sensed the frustration during neighborhood meetings on city finances last year. Rising public complaints and resistance from council members forced him to throttle back his original 7.5 percent tax hike for 2011 to 4.7 percent.

Broberg, who ran for City Council in 2009, was among a crowd protesting final passage of that levy outside City Hall when TV cameramen said they were about to go live. Rybak appeared, to his surprise, and began saying he was doing everything he could to keep taxes down. Broberg ended up yelling at him. "I couldn't take it any more," he said.

Nor could Rybak. His budget's 2012 tax increase: zero percent.

Stadiums

Entering his 11th year, Rybak is putting his political capital on the line for a project that has polarized the city like few others in recent history.

After opposing stadium subsidies during his first campaign for mayor, Rybak is now the chief spokesman for a plan to contribute $300 million in city funds to keep the Vikings in town. Rybak's backtracking on stadium subsidies began before he even took office, when the city was engaged in discussions with the Legislature to keep the Twins in Minnesota.

"I don't think it should be a surprise that over a decade, through two major economic challenges, and through a radically different economy I have different thoughts," Rybak said. But he believes he has honored his promise by spending 10 years prioritizing such issues as education, transportation and public safety.

Looking back on his tenure, Rybak said his proudest achievement was Minneapolis Promise, a collection of counseling, job and scholarship opportunities for city high school students.

"We've really played a huge role in building a global work force for our global city," Rybak said. "And it just changes my life every time I go into these ninth-grade visits."

Rybak's political activities have rarely been limited to City Hall. He was an early supporter of Barack Obama for president and launched a bid for governor in 2010. Now, with Obama facing stiff re-election hurdles, Rybak has joined the Democratic National Committee as one of five vice chairs.

Rybak says he hasn't decided whether he'll seek another term in 2013, but said he is "very open to running."

"I'm getting more done now and more fulfilled in the job now than I have -- by far, in fact -- than at any point since I've been here," Rybak said. "I'm in no rush to get out of here."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper

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